Disney launched its answer to “Pokemon” last year with “Spectrobes,” a sci-fi themed Nintendo DS game about flying around the galaxy, digging up fossils, reviving them and using the resultant creatures to fight monsters. The game’s more descriptive Japanese title said it all: “Fossil Super-Evolution Spectrobes.” Now comes the inevitable sequel, which improves the original game considerably by adding better combat, sharper graphics and deeper online features. The Mouse may just have a viable kids franchise on its hands.
“Spectrobes” was Disney’s first attempt to create an original property in the videogame world, and it sold well enough — with more than 1 million units shipped worldwide — to merit a follow-up. “Beyond the Portals” details the further adventures of teenage hero Rallen, who saves the galaxy from the evil Krux and Krawl, who are punching their way into this dimension through mysterious two-way portals. The story is typical Japanese role-playing-game kiddie stuff, giving young players a relatable hero on a simple mission.
Battles in the first “Spectrobes” were a clunky process of scooting Rallen around an enemy flanked by two of his revived creatures and hoping for the best. But fights here are split into two types, each emphasizing more direct control. During exploration, Rallen uses weapons to take out monsters spit out by tornadoes. Once inside the tornados, the spectrobes take over in pairs, which gives the creatures more personality. Some are toe-to-toe bruisers, some are nimble and some are stand-off ranged attackers. It’s a much more exciting way of playing out combat, and it gives the various spectrobes plenty of character. It’s also a complex enough battle system that “Spectrobes: Beyond the Portals” will appeal to some adult RPG fans.
“Spectrobes” stresses exploration and nurturing as much as fighting. After the monsters have been cleared out of an area, it’s time for the videogame equivalent of beachcombing. Players search the area for food for their spectrobes, buried power-ups, and fossils. The excavation minigames are more varied in this sequel, taking into account different types of terrain, such as sand, ice and water.
The games make great use of the Nintendo DS’ stylus and touchscreen, giving things a tactical sensibility that’s particularly appealing to kids. In a lab, players can advance their spectrobes by feeding them, which affords the game an almost maternal aspect. “Spectrobes” isn’t quite built to appeal to girls, but it deserves credit for encouraging boys to do much more than fight.
Japanese developer Jupiter has made significant progress on the visual front from the original, particularly given the Nintendo DS’ limited 3-D graphics. The original game was coarse, blocky and full of prickly character designs with lots of right angles. This time, there’s a great variety of different types of creatures, all expressive and distinct, some of them even borderline cute and cuddly.
“Beyond the Portals” makes a leap forward in online support. There are battles with other players around the world via a wi-fi connection, and spectrobes can be bought and sold through an online auction house using the money earned in the game. This is the second game, after “Prince Caspian,” to support Disney Interactive’s kid-friendly social networking Dgamer, which can be accessed from a web browser or a Nintendo DS. DGamer lets players dress their online avatar in unlockable outfits from “Spectrobes” and tracks their various accomplishments in the game, nicely tying together the benefits of more adult-oriented services like Facebook and Xbox Live in a kid-friendly package.